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Comedy

4. Introduction

6. Thoughts of the Sit Down Comedian

8. The Comic Heros Journey

12. Funny is Money

18. Five Ways to Create Unique and Funny Characters

20. The Hidden Tools of Comedy


25. Five Serious Career Rules For Any Seriously Funny
Comedic Actor

Introduction
We are well into the 21st century and comedy films and television are in
abundance, and some would say an oversaturation. Maybe youre a
comedy writer, director or actor and are hitting the same bland dead ends in
your work? Enjoying humour is a historically universal theme, yet when sitting
down at your desk with your coffee, laptop at the ready and youre about to
write a comedic masterpiece, why is it that we over-process and over
calculate humour?
Attempting to gather up your awkward personal experiences: Loosing your
dog in the park, ruining that first date, tripping over a cable and knocking
things over or some extremely ironic scenario doesnt always translate to
the big screen. How do you make us care, and more so how can we find you
funny?
With this e-book we aim to provide you with some first hand knowledge from
sources that have hands on experience of what its like in the comedy biz.

Thoughts of the Sit Down Comedian


By Alice Tomlinson
What does it mean to make somebody laugh? YOU know youre hilarious, but
Comedy, as a genre, is hard. Going into the specific tastes of somebodys
humour is convoluted and confusing territory, one that is, too often, dismissed
with cheap and easy jokes. Successful comedy writing today includes an
intricate understanding of comedic beats, conventional structure and
perfectly driven dialogue. It is easy to think yourself funny, its far more difficult
to convince others through a big screen.
Whats interesting to look at when it comes to comedy is its origins.
Shakespearean Comedies for example are determined by a happy
ending- usually a wedding- and are more generally identifiable through their
light-hearted tone and style, much like modern day rom-coms. The necessity
of getting hearty laughs in this case is shown to be left somewhat to the side
in amongst the progression to contentment and justice. Despite the fact that
the jokes in Shakespeares comedies still transcend to contemporary
audiences through themes and characters (think RSC if no films with a
Shakespearean story plot spring to mind) the works themselves are not
remembered specifically for their comedic value.
The origins of comedy on screen start with 1895 silent films for television,
which, with the absence of dialogue, relied more heavily on Slapstick and
Burlesque to give humour. The anchoring of meaning to physical actions and
expressions are relayed successfully by mainstream comedians on the circuit
today, likewise in films that rely on disaster to give humour, as seen in the likes
of Jackass, Bad Grampa etc. Whether you like it or not, the reason why these
films work so well is because they break the convention of an every-day
situation that audiences can relate to.
When you start to think about it, you realise that almost every means of
humour relies on the isolating of a situation from normality. As in early
slapstick, the physical look of being out of place is a key trick to establishing
humour. Playing with appearances such as height or costume for example
instantly sets them apart from the crowd around them in a way that
humorously draws attention. Experimenting through gender roles is also an
easy way to achieve humour through transforming conventional character
attributes. When this is combined with dramatic irony and audience
understanding, this works even better.

Toying with dialogue would similarly have the same effect. A talking animal?
A swearing grandma? When people say what is not expected, or simply say
the wrong thing, we find their carelessness, humiliation or obtuseness funny,
and likewise the reaction of the unsuspecting recipient funny too.
The progression of dark humour, from the original spoofs and social
commentaries of the 1960s into the modern world, is one that is probably
considered the most relevantly funny today. In joking about matters that
arent deemed appropriate to joke about, our laughter- perhaps nervous at
first- allows for a release of tension surrounding the seriousness. Going back to
our Shakespearean comedies again, the subject matter, however dark,
convoluted or intangible, is approached in such a way that allows release
when humour is identified.
Despite dark humour being so popular, this is also a kind of comedy that is
unbearably hard to get right. If the jokes fall flat, or are too outlandishly
insulting, you may find yourself grappling with not only the attraction of the
audience, but also the sustaining of their interests.
As with all things, humour is a very objective and personal thing to have. It
can be very specific to ones taste, or even previous viewing experiences. In
this case, it might be worth considering that two heads are better than one.
When getting a gauge on humour, the more opinion you get (hopefully)
means the more successful you are in achieving laughs first time around. As a
writer, we know that youve read your way through hundreds of screenwriting
books, analysed the greats, read up for the important lectures. You know
what makes you laugh, how characters and plot work together and are
familiar with the various intricate stages of planning your plot, BUT you find
yourself incapable of writing a funny line of dialogue to achieve your long
sought after humour. It might be time to consider a collaboration.
On that note, the key thing to remember when attempting to write comedy is
to work with the skills that you already have. Anyone can fill a page with
cheap and easy jokes that fall flat. As a writer, the most important thing
about your story is how it sustains your audiences attention. At the same time
as our laughing at whats happening on screen, we need to stay absorbed
enough in the characters and their relationships in order to CARE about
following them through the rest of the plot. Whether you think its funny or not,
perhaps its worth working backward with the script, adding jokes in more
naturally as they come to you as you read over a completed story. It is far
harder to punch up captivating events in your film than adding in jokes.
Remember that we, as an audience, want to root for them and see them
meet their objective, the humour along the way is just a means of enjoying
the all-important story line of your feature even more.
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The Comic Heroes Journey


By Steve Kaplan
Weve all heard about the Heros Journey, thanks to Joseph Campbell and
Chris Vogler. If youve seen Star Wars, youve seen a good example of the
heros journey dramatizeda young person who has greatness within gets a
call to go on an adventure. After first refusing the call they may meet up
with a wise old mentor, join a motley team of allies, go on a series of
adventures before returning with a fabulous treasure.
But what about the protagonist in a comedy? That character also goes on a
journey, what we call The Comic Heros Journey. That journey usually has 7
stages. They are:
1. The Normal World
2. WTF
3. Re-Action
4. Connections
5. New Directions
6. Disconnections, and finally,
7. Race to the Finish
Lets start with the Normal World.
In the beginning of the Heros Journey, our hero is exceptional. He or she has
hidden greatness within, but at the start, our heroes are unaware of their
undiscovered virtues. In the comic heros journey, your protagonist, the
comic hero, does not have greatness within them. The protagonist is usually a
dweeb or a jerk, or some other kind of a misbegotten misanthrope. In Big hes
bullied and not big enough to go on a ride with the girl of his dreams. In
Groundhog Day, Phil Connors is an egotistical a-hole. In the Normal World,
the comic heros initial state is defective in some vital way; theres a hole
inside them; their way of being in the world is deeply, deeply flawed.
At the start of the Normal World, the comic heros life does not work only
they dont know it! To them, its the normal state of affairs and theyve
accepted it, trying to make the best of what we in the audience can see is a
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flawed, screwed-up world. In this world, our heroes have initial goals which
are short-sighted. (These initial goals will eventually be replaced by
discovered goals as the characters transform during the course of the
narrative.)
In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is a news weatherman for a television station.
And in the beginning, we in the audience can see that hes sort of a cynical,
stunted soul, and that his way of being in the world might not be working for
him at all, whereas he thinks that all he really needs is to get a bigger
contract at a bigger station.
In This Is The End, our heroes Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel are going through
a moderate bit of show business success. Seth thinks that hes living he good
life as long as he can party hearty and do more drugs and hang out with
James Franco. Jay, on the other hand, is very anti-Los Angeles, and looks
down on the aimless hedonism and career striving of his more successful
friend. But what Jays not aware of is that he still wants the same show
business success that his peers are attaining. On the one hand, doesnt want
to be like Seth and James Franco, but on the other hand, hes really a bit
jealous of them. Even though Jay carries more of the voice of reason in the
relationship, hes still not in a good placehis way of being in the world isnt
working for him.
In 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell, his goal is simply to wake up, go to work,
come back alone, make an omelette alone, play on his video games. To
him, thats the length and breadth of his world. And thats what hes
comfortable with, and thats how hes going to stay. In Tropic Thunder Robert
Downey Jr. and Ben Stiller just want to make this terrible Vietnam-era movie.
Initial goals are short-sighted and dont address inner needs.
In the 'Normal World', there are flawed or absent relationships.
In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is kind of a misanthrope, and all his relationships
are superficial. Steve Carell in 40-Year-Old Virgin has no real relationships
except for the African-American couple who he shares viewing Survivor with.
He doesnt have any close friends, certainly no female relationships.
In This Is The End, we can see that the relationship between Seth Rogen and
Jay Baruchel is deeply flawed. Theyre not aware of it because both Jay has
kept secret that hes come to Los Angeles and purposely not gotten in touch
with Seth Rogen because he just thinks that Seth Rogen is a sell-out. And Jays
not really doing anything to repair these relationships.
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The Normal World can last anywhere from 5 to 25 minutes, setting up your
protagonists before the 'WTF', the big event, the catalyst thats going to send
everything spinning out of orbit. During this time, you want to plant many, if
not all, the seeds of conflict and resolution that are going to be developed in
the narrative and come into play in Acts 2 and 3. Its a truism of screenplay
writing that if you have Act 3 problems, theyre Act 1 problems. If youre stuck
in the Acts 2 or 3, its because you havent properly prepared for things in act
one.
One of the seeds youll plant in Act 1 is what we call Mask to Mensch. Your
protagonist starts off wearing a mask, a faade that hides, from himself as
well as us, the good man or woman he will eventually becomea mensch.*1
Your characters are pretending, most successfully to themselves, unaware of
the possibility that theres a better person inside. During the course of the
narrative, the mask is dropped and the good person, the mensch, emerges.
But in the Normal World, while we mostly see the false front, we need to see a
glimpse, no matter how fleetingly, of the person they might become.
In the Normal World, your theme is implied or hinted at. What the movie is
going to eventually be about needs to be alluded to without being hit on the
head. For instance, in Groundhog Day as theyre driving up to Punxatawney,
Chris Elliott turns to Bill Murray and says, What do you have against the
groundhog? I covered the swallows going back to Capistrano four years in a
row. And Bill Murray says, very offhandedly, Somebodys going to see me
interviewing a groundhog and think I dont have a future. Which is in fact
whats going to happen.
The theme is foreshadowed in the Normal World, and the more opportunities
you can have characters and dialogue allude to the theme, without putting
your thumb too heavily on the scales, the better. In Purple Rose of Cairo the
husband, Danny Aiello, repeats throughout the movie, Life is not like the
movies!. That foreshadows ironically what is about to happen as the fictional
character Jeff Daniels is playing is going to emerge from the screen and fall
in love with Mia Farrow.
Now you could write a draft and not know what your theme is. You could
write three drafts and not really know what your theme is. But at some point,
no matter how silly or light your comedy is, its got to be about something.
What are you talking about, the meaning of the movie, what it should mean
to us. At some point, either in your first draft or in your tenth draft, once you
figure out what your theme is, you want to go back to the beginning of the
movie and thread that through. Very lightly. Your premise, your high concept,
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may be the big selling point of the movie, the engine that sets everything in
motion and keeps it going, but the theme is the rudder. The theme guides
you in your choices.
In the movie Big, for instance, the theme is, Whats the nature of childhood?
Whats the nexus between being a child and being an adult? So in the
theme, when the Tom Hanks character has to get a job. He could have
gotten a job in a bank, he could have gotten a job in a gas station, but
thematically, it makes more sense to have him hook up with the head of a
toy company in FAO Schwarz because thematically thats what theyre
talking about.

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Funny is Money
By Baptiste Charles

Any film that's made you laugh could easily have been a drama. Tootsie? Oh
the yearning of breaking free from this prison Michael Dorsey has shackled
himself in! Facing an impossible dilemma, Dorothy Michaels asks for her
character to be written off, yet the executives won't do it, so she kills herself
on live television. The end. All the great comedies could have been made
into straight, serious dramas were it not for the gifts and hard work of their
makers.

So, at which point did the story change course? What makes the difference?
Humour is tragedy plus time, they say. Or distance: because, as Charlie
Chaplin said: "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in longshot."
So you start writing, and what have you got? A mess. You want to make the
next big comedy hit, following The Hangover, Bridesmaids, or Ted? Let's look
at some of the highest-grossing comedies, and study the serious business of
making comedy.

Step 1: The Hook


Comedy is about the unexpected. If you want to keep your narrative
together (and that's true for any story) you should be able to summarize the
initial situation and the inciting incident in a very succinct, clear sentence
suggesting that a lot is going to happen, in the next 90-120 minutes. If you
can also suggest a tone, or a world in that sentence, that's the dream.
What Women Want ($374m) After an accident, a chauvinistic executive gains
the ability to hear what women are really thinking. You've got the main
character and the driving conflict: you start imagining that it's gonna cause
some changes in the workplace, and hopefully he's going to become a
better man for it. Add to the mix that the executive is played Mel Gibson, and
you're know that it's going to be interesting.
Hitch ($368m) While helping his latest client woo the fine lady of his dreams, a
professional "date doctor" finds that his game doesn't quite work on the
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gossip columnist with whom he's smitten. The premise may not be ultra
elaborate, but if you insist more on the fact that the woman he's after is truly
exceptional than on the fact that he really can get them all, then you've got
what you need. The difference with the previous example is that being
chauvinistic, however wrong and unnerving, is more a habit than an identity.
In the case of Hitch, sweeping women off their feet is what he does -better
yet, that's who he is. When the conflict hits so close to home, you know the
character will go even further -thus providing more laughs.
Shrek ($484m) After his swamp is filled with fairy tale creatures, an ogre
agrees to rescue a princess for a villainous lord in order to get his land back.
What? A fairy tale with an ogre as the hero? The movie does an expert job at
taking your expectations of what a fairy tale is, and going the exact opposite
way, and does so brilliantly. Prince Charming is so handsome but so dimwitted. The reviled ogre who relishes mud baths actually has a heart as
gooey as the food he eats. (Aww) A fairy tale where characters have a life
outside the beaten path of the worn-out stories and you root for the
underdog? You've got the character, the conflict, the world. Where do I
sign? For more subverted expectations, wait till Step 5.
With a clear and expansive tagline, you've got a world of possibilities, you've
hooked your viewer, and if you've suggested a wide world of possibilities, you
know you'll be hired for sequels.

Step 2: Clash Of Civilizations


There's no story without conflict. That's the basis of writing. Usually, goals are
conflicting. But let's do broader: what if worlds collided? The phrase "clash of
civilizations" is used often in our day and age (unfortunately). If you manage
to coalesce that idea within a script: your story is going to write itself.
Something's Gotta Give ($266m) A swinger on the cusp of being a senior
citizen with a taste for young women falls in love with an accomplished
woman closer to his age. That's going to be a riot (not just because Diane
Keaton and Jack Nicholson are playing virtual alter egos). Sparks are going
to fly. He's probably old, sexist and the absolute antithesis of what she stands
for. Add the fact that, having reached a certain age, they're probably both
too set in their ways to see each other for who they really are. Or are they?
Meet The Fockers ($516m) All hell breaks loose when the Byrnes family meets
the Focker family for the first time.Ok, not the best premise line, dear IMDb.
Let's put it this way: a couple has their respective parents meet, and they
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couldn't be more different: hers are rigorous and uptight, his are new-age,
liberated hippies. Need I say more? Yes. Yes, I do, as said liberated hippies
are played with immense glee by screen legends Dustin Hoffman and Barbra
Streisand.
When Harry met Sally ($92.8m) Harry and Sally have known each other for
years, and are very good friends, but they fear sex would ruin the friendship.
What's more primal than the difference between men and women? It doesn't
matter than most of it is socially constructed: it still makes for starkly different
worldview and hilarious misunderstandings.
Because comedy goes beyond just a wisecracking character and a few
good one-liners: it's about the collision of people and habits, hopeless
situations which will push characters to go the extra mile and outside their
comfort zone. Talking of which:

Step 3: Well-defined characters


As comedy is even more about expectations than drama. So if you've got
characters that are well-defined from the very beginning of the story, and
who will go beyond the expectations we've formed for them, or change in
some way, that's all the more possibilities for you to make your audience
laugh and care.
The Woody Allen character in virtually every Woody Allen movie: no one has
ever made one movie a year for fifty years, so there's really no other way of
putting it. For any film buff, the Woody Allen character calls the same
adjectives: "neurotic" and "wisecracking". Over the course of an incredible
career that's only comparable to that of Charlie Chaplin and The Tramp in
terms of creating a persona, we've become well acquainted with him and
know what to expect when we see Woody (or one of his alter egos) on the
screen.
Melvin, in As Good As It Gets ($314m): in the first ten pages, we've established
that (a) he's a successful writer because we've seen him writing and patting
himself on the back after he's finished writing his umpteenth novel, (b) he's
neurotic as we're shown how obsessive he is when he shuts his apartment and
when he washes his hands, (c) nothing can make him change as he's shown
sending a cute poodle down the garbage chute instead of changing his
ways. And, as the words in italic hinted, it's also a good example of character
introduction through showing and not telling. (Add Jack Nicholson's genius
and you're good to go.)
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Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada ($326m): she walks into the building,
comes out of the elevator and gives instructions to her first assistant. That
could go many ways, but since she does so with such regal style, making
everyone scatter before her, all in a cool demeanour and with terrific lines
("Details of your incompetence do not interest me") delivered with over-thetop gusto by Meryl Streep, we've understood that she's not someone anyone
would want to mess with.
It's paramount that characters be well-defined, so that we see clearly who's
interacting with whom. They don't have to be people we like, but people we
take an interest in. Remember that, in The Devil Wears Prada, our way into
the story was Andrea, not Miranda, and it becomes growingly apparent that
Miranda is not just nasty for the sake of being nasty, she's just doing her job,
and her job is demanding.

Step 4: Tone Consistency


In any story, tone consistency is crucial. Comedy is an even harder balance
to find than drama, because drama that doesn't fully work can kind of work,
but comedy that falls flat is just painful to behold.
Juno ($231m): the distinctive voice of the main character was wellestablished in the script, and Jason Reitman brought Juno's idiosyncratic
world onto the screen with the same disconcerting cockiness that the
character displays throughout the film. By bringing the story through Juno's
eyes, we've got one of the most tender character voices in recent years.
Amlie ($173m): talking about idiosyncratic... Always one to go the extra
mile, and aim for distinctive visual style, he managed to put a character, her
worldview, dreams and obsessions on the screen, while magnifying what Paris
stands for in our collective unconsciousness (and hers specifically).
Back To The Future ($970m): Robert Zemeckis is a singular filmmaker. Once
Steven Spielberg's protg, he's the one that came up with the scene in E.T.
during which the mother goes into the room and E.T. hides among the stuffed
animals. He's also responsible for writing with Bob Gale"1941", Spielberg's 1979
bomb (and a personal favorite). They teamed up again for the Back To The
Future trilogy. You only need to look at the Doc's hairstyle to realize that the
cast of characters who are hardly anything more than one-dimensional,
either go beyond their own limitations if they're good, or get what they
deserve if they're bad. (That's a pulp film, y'all.) Yet you know that the humour
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is not meant to be subtle and -most importantly- the filmmakers know it too,
which makes for hilarious, touching mainstream blockbuster entertainment.
Those three examples are definitely in the offbeat brand, and you may want
to go for something more subdued. Subdued can be funny. Is your film a
comedy of manners? Do the laughs from characters? Let the story decide.

Step 5: Subverting Expectations


If you let your story decide, that doesn't mean you can't shape it and
whenever you can: go for the jugular. Go for the unexpected, or better yet,
the opposite of what is expected. Take a look at these.
Burn After Reading ($163m) George Clooney is just about as handsome as
movie stars get, with a subtle Cary Grant demeanour and an immaculate,
charming smile. You'd expect him to be smart and witty, and that he'd get
the girl. That happens in a movie like Ocean's Eleven. In a Coen Brothers
comedy? He indeed is charming and has the immaculate smile in place, but
he's kind of dim-witted. That's sort of meta-storytelling, as it plays with the
audience's expectations about the movie, and the promotion machine and
not so much the character within the story. Does it work? Yes, and even more
so when you see how much Clooney enjoys being in this character's shoes.
Bridesmaids ($288m): If you've seen the trailer, you know that this film is not
your average "girl movie" and that's precisely the point. A movie about
bridesmaids? Cake, champagne, and rose petals are going to flow! Well...
You only need to watch the raunchy (putting it mildly) wedding-gown
shopping scene to realize that the boys from The Hangover don't have a
monopoly on gross, over-the-top humour.
Ted ($549m) What happens to our teddy bears once we've grown up? More
importantly, we were so busy imbuing them with a life of their own, they didn't
get to grow up. But what if they did? What if your teddy bear grew up too?
What if it became a cursing, pot-smoking, perpetually horny teddy bear? We
were warned that the movie was raunchy, and that it could be offensive. Is
it? Depends on who you ask. I come from a country where Fifty Shades of
Grey was deemed suitable for people above 12 years of age, so you may
have a hunch what my answer will be. Is a frat-boy-type teddy bear novel?
You bet, and it's hilarious.

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Funny is... what?


These are five major, inescapable steps that you will need to make a good
comedy. Those comedies took in several hundred million dollars at the box
office, and that could be you. They all followed those steps. The making of a
funny film requires as much, if not more, discipline as you need for a drama.
Again, watching someone trying to be funny and falling flat is painful. Don't
be that person. Study the market, watch what's being done, see what's not
being done, and go for what tickles your funny bone. Chances are that you
could have the next summer hit that's not DC Comics or Marvel-related.

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Five Ways to Create Unique and Funny


Characters
By Sarah Cornell
Weve all been there. Youre handed a script, or thrown into an improv scene
where youre asked to play a character and told to be funny. And...GO!
No pressure! Creating a character that is at once identifiable, the kind of
person you just know and yet completely unique and to top it off, funny.
This is an overwhelmingly difficult challenge. It can send you groping around
in the darkness or regurgitating some clich stock character youve seen
before in a Love Boat episode or British Farce. You feel self-conscious, and
wooden. No ones laughing. All of the oxygen just got sucked out of the
room and the voices in your head start, Youre not funny! Youre a dramatic
actor. You cant do this! But, actually, you can. You can play an hilarious,
totally original character. You just have to find your way in.

1. LISTEN!
Character creation is less about creating, more about listening. In a script,
what do the other characters say about you? What labels do they put on
you? Play right into their expectations. What is your name? In ancient times
someones name determined their destiny and great care was given to the
naming of a person. So it is with writers. If youre playing Olivia Baxter your
status is high, your manner refined and perhaps youre a headstrong
socialite. If youre playing Deloris Clustermeyer perhaps youre cranky and
plain. The same goes for improv. What does your partner label you as?
Youre not my real Dad, your a deadbeat. Immediately you play a
deadbeat light up a cigarette, throw back a cold one, and sneer Just
cause I made your diapers out of newspaper. Or maybe your suggestion for
an open scene is ice -cream parlour What kind of people go to ice-cream
parlours? A squeaky-clean mommas boy or a hokey old lady. You can
even be informed by actual ice cream. You ask yourself: what is ice cream
like? and choose to play someone cold, slumped over and drippy.

2. LOOK!
What does your character look like? How old are they? What are they
wearing? What shoes are they wearing? Good character work begins with
the shoes. The shoes affect the way the character moves, how grounded
they are, how they feel. When rehearsing without costume, always make sure
you are wearing the actual costume shoes. Do they have an overbite? Play
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with your face. It may sound clich but starting with a strong facial quirk can
be a great way into a character. Think of Zoolanders signature pout or Amy
Poehlers naive grin as Leslie Knope on Parks and Rec.

3. SPEAK UP!
A strange or unique sounding voice can be a great jumping off point for a
character. Think of Ellen Green as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. Her
simpering sweet voice and low rent lisp is impossible to separate from this
character icon. Your characters voice says everything (pun intended).
Perhaps you have low self-esteem and are afraid to be heard so you speak in
the back of your throat. An insincere salesman is used to talking for a living, so
hell speak quickly with polished diction and soothing tones. Momma Rose
from Gypsy is driven and determined to see her daughters successful. Maybe
she believes the whole world is on her shoulders so her voice is heavy, intense,
powerful and guttural. Dont worry about being clich. If your character
voice is informed by these internal qualities you will always be original. In
improv, you can start from the outside in. A woman with a low, curt voice
might be a tollbooth operator with a poets soul, which is why her speech is
clipped, because her emotions are so deep.

4. JUDGE!
This may seem counter intuitive based on everything youve learned in acting
class but comedy is different. Funny characters are deeply flawed people
who against all odds think they can win. Thats why we love them. But they
are flawed and you must lovingly make fun of them. For an exercise, do an
impression of one of your parents. What is it in their personality drives you
crazy? Danny Coleman has a delicious time playing the sleazy, egomaniacal
twit Franklin Hart Jr. in 9 to 5 because he doesnt search for integrity or try
and find redeeming qualities. You can actually be two dimensional in
comedy. Isnt that fun for a change?!

5. AMP IT UP!
Take those character flaws and multiply them by 10 or even 100. Dont just be
a little dumb be D U M, Duuuumb! Case and point, Jeff Daniels & Jim Carey
in Dumb and Dumber. If youre supposed to be whiney let everything you do
and say be on the verge of tears. It is so much fun to watch an actor push
that characters flaws over the top. Similarly, whatever qualities are given in
the description, take beyond the natural. Dont be afraid of taking things too
far. In comedy, you go big or go home!

19

The Hidden Tools of Comedy


By Steve Kaplan
Lets start off with a test. A Comedy Perception Test, to see if we perceive
comedy with 20-20 vision. Below are seven sentences/ seven images. They
dont mean anything other than what they are. Theres no back story. Read
them carefully.
A. Man slipping on a banana peel.
B. Man wearing a top hat slipping on a banana peel.
C. Man slipping on a banana peel after kicking a dog.
D. Man slipping on a banana peel after losing his job.
E. Blind man slipping on a banana peel.
F. Blind man's dog slipping on a banana peel. And
G. Man slipping on a banana peel, and dying.
So, you have these seven sentences, word-pictures that contain no hidden
meanings or narratives. Now answer these four questions: Which of these
statements is the funniest? The least funny? The most comic? And which one
is the least comic? Now one of you might be thinking to yourself, Comic and
funnyisnt that the same thing? Excellent question, thanks for asking. But
just for now, lets stick to selecting which one you think is the funniest, the least
funniest, the most comic and the least comic.
Lets start with the funniest. Which one did you pick?
A.) Man slipping on a banana peel? How about
C.) Man kicking a dog or
D.) Man losing his job? (OK, that one only a boss could find funny.)
Was your choice E.) Blind Man? (And if it was, shame on you! Youre sick, you
know that?)
So, which did you decide was the funniest? The answer to which is funniest is,
of course . . . youre right, no matter which one you picked! Dont you feel
affirmed? You were right because the difference between whats funny and
whats comic is that funny is subjective. If youre laughing at it, to you, thats
funny. End of story. End debate. Period. If youre laughing at it, its funny to
you. And by the same token, if youre not laughing at it, no matter how
learned a review in The New Yorker, to you, its not funny. I have a three-yearold nephew. And if I took like my keys and started shaking my keys, I can
make him laugh. So to him, thats funny. But would you give me $600,000
against a million option to buy those set of keys?
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One of the biggest mistakes that writers make is that theyre worried whether
the script is funny or not funny. But funny, as weve said, is subjective. What
comedians will tell you is that you cant live or die by whether this person or
that person laughs. You have to do your material and just trust that its
creating a comic picture, a comic portrait, and that comedy is not
predicated on how many jokes there are on the page. The worst sitcom you
can think of, the worst comic movie, the worst Rom-com, is chock full of
moments that theyre trying to make funny.
So whats comedy? In my seminar, we watch a lot of comedy clips, but one
of the most important clips we watch is from a daytime soap opera. When I
show it, occasionally people laugh. Taken out of context its pretty funny. OK,
its very funny. But why would we want to watch a soap to learn about
comedy? Heres the thing: Everybody involved in thisas writers, directors,
actors, designers and craftsmenis usually dedicated to not making you
laugh. So I think its instructive to pay attention to what are they doing and
the choices theyre making. Take a look at almost any soap scene. The first
thing you have to notice about people in soaps is that theyre more than just
good-looking, theyre almost supernaturally attractive. People like this just do
not exist in nature. And the combination of writing, directing and
performance is designed to communicate a specific set of qualities. Even
when the behaviour is extreme, i.e. adultery, murder and deceit, the staples
of daytime drama, the actors rarely act in an inappropriate manner, such as
that would tend to mock the characters. The actors playing the characters
are subtly saying to us: Look at me, look how sensitive I am, how much I'm
suffering, how deeply I feel, how intelligent I am. And Ill turn to the women in
the audience, and Ill say, Ladies, is this what your significant other is like?
Theres often a big laugh because obviously, theyre not.
The point is that drama helps us dream about what we can be, but comedy
helps us live with who we are.
Comedy helps us live with who we are because while drama idealizes mans
perfection and the tragedy of his falling short, comedy operates secure in the
knowledge of mans imperfection: insecure, awkward, fumbling unsureall
the core attributes of comedy. Doesnt this really describe us all? While
drama might depict one of us going through a dark night of the soul,
comedy sees the dark night, but also notices that, during that dark night,
we're still wearing the same robe we've had on for a few days and eating
chunky peanut butter out of the jar while sitting and watching Judge Judy.
Its still a dark night, but one that comedy makes more bearable by helping
us keep thingslike our lifein perspective.

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Comedy tells the truth, and specifically, it tells the truth about being human.
A comedian is simply the courageous person who gets up in front of a group
of strangers and admits, confesses to being human. In that if you have the
courage to tell the truth, and mostly the truth about yourself, and the truth
about the crazy things that you do, and the crazy way that you see the
world, then you have a good head start in creating comedy. So whats
comedy? The paradigm of comedy is an ordinary guy or gal struggling
against insurmountable odds without many of the required tools with which to
win, yet never giving up hope. It can almost be stated as an equation:
An ordinary guy or galJackie Gleason used to call him a mokestruggling
against insurmountable odds, without many of the required tools with which
to win, yet never giving up hope. From this paradigm or equation, we can
draw we can draw usable, practical tools, what we call the Hidden Tools of
Comedy. The tools are:
1Winning
2Non-Hero
3Positive (or Selfish) Action
4Active Emotion
5Metaphorical Relationship
6Straight Line/Wavy Line
First theres the tool of Winning. Winning is the idea that, in comedy, you are
allowed to do whatever you think you need to do in order to win. Comedy
gives the character permission to win. In winning, there are no shoulds.
Even if it makes you look stupid, you can do what you think you have to do in
order to win. Youre not trying to be funny, just trying to get what you want,
given who you are.
Next is Non-Hero. Non-hero is the ordinary guy who lacks some, if not all, of
the required skills with which to win. Note that we dont say comic hero, but a
non-hero. Not an idiot, not an exaggerated fool, but simply somebody who
lacks something. Or many things, but is still determined to win. The more skills
your character has, the less comic and the more dramatic the character is.
This is how you can shape the arc in a romantic comedy: in the romantic
moments, the heretofore clumsy or obnoxious hero becomes more sensitive,
more mature. Dont believe me? Take a look at Bill Murray in Groundhog
Day.
Positive Action, or selfish-action, or hopeful action, is the idea that every
action your character takes, your character actually thinks is going to work,
no matter how stupid, or foolish or naive that might make him or her appear.
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It also takes the nasty edge off of characters such as Basil Fawlty in Fawlty
Towers or Louie DePalma in Taxi.
Active Emotion is the idea that the emotion that occurs naturally in the
course of trying to win. The emotion that is created simply by being in the
situation is the exact right emotion to be having.
Metaphorical Relationship is the tool of perception. Its the idea that beneath
every surface relationship is a true, or essential, metaphorical relationship.
Each character perceives others around him, and the world itself, in specific,
metaphorical ways. Think about the couples you know. Some fight like cats
and dogs, some coo to each other like babies and some are like business
partners: OK, I cant have sex with you this Thursday, but if I move some
things around, I might be able to squeeze it in Sunday afternoon, barring no
further complications. Even thought theyre a married couple, their
metaphorical relationship is that of nose-to-the-grindstone business partners.
Its Oscar and Felix, two middle-aged divorced roommates, acting like an old
married couple. And its Jerry and George, sitting in the back of a police car,
acting like kids: Hey, can I play with the siren?
And last, but not least, the tool that challenges the conventional view of
comedy: Straight Line/Wavy Line. John Cleese once said that when they
started Monty Python, they thought that comedy was the silly bits: "We used
to think that comedy was watching someone do something silly...we came to
realize that comedy was watching somebody watch somebody do
something silly." There is the mistaken belief that in every duo theres the funny
guy and the straight guy. In Whos On First? its obvious that Lou Costello,
the short, fat, roly-poly bumbler is the funny man of the team, whereas tall,
thin, severe Bud Abbott is the straight man. This misconception misses the
essential truth about comedythat it is a team effort, where each member
of the team is contributing to the comic moment. The real dynamic is that of
watcher and watched, the one who sees and the one who does not see; the
one creating the problem and the one struggling with the problem. Think of
Kramer in Seinfeld. The comedy isnt just watching Kramer behave in his
typically outrageous fashion, the comedy requires Jerry or George or Elaine
to watch it in bemused amazement.
The tool of straight line/wavy line recognizes this. Its the idea that not only do
we need someone, some funny person, to do something silly or create a
problem, we also need someone who is acting as the audiences
representative to watch that person do something silly or struggle to solve the
problem that has been created. The other character might not be as verbal,
might not be doing the funny things, but because the other character is also
a non-hero, he or she sees the problem, but doesnt have the skills to solve it.
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The straight line creates the problem, like he has blinders on, and is actually
blind to the problem or is creating the problem themselves. The wavy line
struggles, but is unable to, solve the problem. So what the wavy line does
more than not is simply doing a lot of watching. Watching without knowing
what to do about it, so theres confusion. Theres consternation. Whereas the
other characters are doing something as John Cleese would saysilly. And
its that combination that creates the comic moment, as opposed to
somebody simply getting hit with a pie in the face.

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5 Serious Career Rules For Any Seriously funny


Comedic Actor
By Lindsay Ames
It's no laughing matter. Comedy can be tough. Like Chuck Norris tough.
Birthing a career as a comedy actress can include about a dozen trimesters.
Having delivered many such roles in my career, I can confirm some of the
possible symptoms and discomforts: nausea, back pain, cramps,
dehydration, inexplicable cravings and a few other unsavoury side affects
that I'll spare you with. The common denominator is this: an ill-conceived
career strategy can lead to, let's say, complications.
So you want to act, and to tailor your career on the premise of making
people laugh? There's no unfailing formula. No textbook. No tried and true
method guaranteed or your money back. And if the correct steps are missed,
you could be headed towards otherwise avoidable pitfalls in your journey to
booking roles and building your comedic niche.
Now you might say people are always telling you just how hilariously talented
you are. And witty? Check. Can't miss timing? Check. Physical comedy?
Check. Verbal comedy? No problem. Situational? Please.
Even when armed with such comedy artillery, the film and TV biz is notoriously
present with landmines that can implode your Lucille Ball or Kristen Wiig-like
aspirations. So whether you're starting out, well entrenched or ever
considering retreat, I am here to back you up with my 5 serious career rules
for any seriously funny comedic actor.

1. The best activities for your health are pumping and


humping. Arnold Schwarzenegger
And the best activities for your comedy are training and showcasing. That's
right, you've got to learn to walk before you can run. In comedy, you have to
train before you can showcase. Even the Governator knows that. Joining an
improve group or partaking in an open mic stand-up nights are great places
to start. Always be writing; there is no better exercise.

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2. Live at Live Shows


Okay so once you've learned, practiced and polished the fundamentals,
meet your new second home the live show! There's a reason so many of the
all-time comedy greats got their start by performing live on stage at venues
known throughout the comedy community in Canada and in the U.S.
Catherine O'Hara, Andrea Martin, Deborah DiGiovanni, Alana Johnston and
Katie Crown. The list goes on and on.
Its important to go to shows and know what shows you want to attend, so
that you can begin formulating contacts. Some people might be able to
help set up slots for you prior, but a lot of venues want to see you there prior
to booking you. Get a tape together of your work so that you can send it to
bookers and get shows lined up when you arrive. And by shows, I include
sketches, improv, stand-up and storytelling.

3. Create Your Own Vehicles


No one is going to do this job for you. As the competition increases, the
opportunities are more scarce, especially for comedic actresses. Do not wait
for someone to hand you a job. Create the jobs. Create the shows. Its a
more fulfilling career path.
I worked steadily to created a myriad of short films both commissioned and
self driven. I absolutely know that this has helped me succeed and end up on
shows like the Emmy nominated Key and Peele, New Girl, and my own MTV
web series called How to End a Date in 30 Seconds or Less.
By working with other comedians and having peers see my work, the
opportunity to work at MTV came to me. I was approached. I finance my
own work for the most part. People's best bet are Kickstarter programs,
parents, friends of parents...take it to the streets. Getting involved in a
community like Channel 101 helped me greatly because there were likeminded people who wanted to create and shoot things. DPs, editors... there
are a ton of film students who want and need practice, so it's best to find
those resources and get involved.
Always shoot things no matter how dumb or bad. Teach yourself to edit, no
matter how bad you are. Borrow a camera. Direct yourself. Don't treat
anything as if it's precious. It will only get in the way. It's all building blocks and
a learning curve until you create work you are proud of.

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4. Men Are From Mars. Comedy is from Venus.


Comedy is a male dominated area in the entertainment industry. It's just how
it's been. But we are so lucky to live in a time where strong female comedians
are continually bursting forth onto the scene with new, imaginative, hilarious
voices.
Everywhere I look there are incredible females bringing it every time they hit
the stage names like fellow Canadians Alana Johnston, Georgia Brooks and
Katie Crown, as well as Emily Heller, Alice Wetterlund, Beth Stelling, Kate
Berlant, Megan Neuringer and more. If we think in terms of female or male
comedians, we are a lost civilization. It's about being a funny human. Gender
is insignificant.
Don't worry about the sexist, over misogynistic D-hole at the open mic that
thinks he's hilarious as only "joking" about that finger banging drunk girl joke.
Do your best work and the rest will come. Know that there are a bunch of
women doing the same thing as you, doing it well and not letting a male
comedian intimidate them off their path.

5. Comedy doesn't build character. It reveals it.


The best way to approach comedy is be honest. Figure out what you are
trying to say. Figure out your voice. It comes from practice and will
consistently change. I generally generate a lot of comedy from the worst
things that have happened to me, or something that has affected me in
some way.
Then blow it out in scripted form. Go to shows and try to assess why other
people make you laugh, and what you like about their performances.
Maybe you are more of a storyteller. Maybe you are more of a straight standup. Character work is possibly your thing. Or musical comedy. Whatever your
area is, explore and try to learn as much as you can from others.
If you think you are funny, then go for it. Fall on your face. Try.

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